Teaching assistant 'victimised' for wearing veil, tribunal rules

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A Muslim teaching assistant has vowed to pursue her right to wear a veil during lessons after an employment tribunal found that she had been victimised by the school which suspended her but dismissed claims that she was subjected to religious discrimination and harassment.

The tribunal awarded Aishah Azmi £1,100 for "injury to feelings" and also condemned the interference of politicians, including Tony Blair and the community cohesion minister, Phil Woolas, who have made public comments in support of Mrs Azmi's employer.

Mrs Azmi, 24, who was suspended after she refused to remove her veil at Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, said she would now seek to pursue her case in the European Court of Justice. She flatly rejected the school's offer of renewed employment if she agreed to remove the veil. "Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens, and politicians need to recognise that what they say can have a very dangerous impact," she said. "Integration requires people like me to be in the workplace so that people can see that we are not to be feared or mistrusted." She added that the case had made her "fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work".

At a press conference in Leeds, at which she responded to the tribunal's findings, Mrs Azmi, wearing a black niqab, and her solicitor, Nick Whittingham, provided a fuller picture of the details of her dispute with Kirklees Council.

Mrs Azmi, who has two children, said she did not wear a veil to her interview for the job because she was "caught unawares", thinking a woman would assess her for the role at the junior school, in Thornhill Lees, Dewsbury, which teaches 546 boys and girls aged seven to 11.

She had started work at the school on 1 September last year as a bilingual ethnic minority achievement curriculum support assistant, working with 11-year-old children in Year 6 who spoke English as their second language, assisting them with lessons in maths and English.

Mrs Azmi claims that she told the school she wore a veil and asked to work only with female teachers. The headteacher agreed that she could wear the veil in class when she was with a male teacher. This worked for three weeks until she was asked to work with a different male teacher who was unhappy with the arrangements. The following week she was asked to remove the veil, refused and, after consultation with the local education authority, the headteacher told her that she would not be allowed to wear a veil on school premises.

After she refused and invited the head teacher to dismiss her, she was told by the headteacher in November last year to see her GP, who signed her off on sick leave. It was after her return from this leave that she was suspended on full pay for maintaining her stance.

Mrs Azmi does not object to removing the veil in front of male pupils but she suggested yesterday that she could be accommodated in Year 3 of the school, which has all female students.

"I can and do teach perfectly well with my veil on," she said. "Just give it a chance - that's what I call integration."

After the tribunal's decision, Kirklees Council, whose failure to comply with statutory grievance procedures resulted in a 10 per cent uplift on the £1,000 sum awarded for injury to feelings in the case, said its decision was taken after a period spent monitoring the impact of wearing the veil on teaching and learning as Mrs Azmi undertook her "crucial" role.

A spokesman said the school and local authority had to balance "the rights of the children to receive the best-quality education possible and Mrs Azmi's desire to express her cultural beliefs by wearing a veil in class". He said the education of the children was of "paramount importance".

Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: "The tribunal's finding that teaching assistant Aishah Azmi was victimised is much welcomed. However, we note that this victimisation was supported by ministers of the state, MPs and even the Prime Minister."